Moe anthropomorphism — aka “girls who are also [insert things that are very much not girls here]” — is a popular trend, particularly in the mobile and free-to-play gaming markets.
We’ve seen a number of success stories in this “genre” of popular entertainment over the last few years, with probably the most famous example probably being Kadokawa Games’ Kantai Collection, which went on to spawn anime, manga and all manner of other merchandise.
It’s unsurprising, then, that other developers remain keen to capitalise on the public’s apparent hunger for “girls who are also things that are not girls”. One of the latest games to cater to this demand is Girls’ Frontline by Chinese outfit MICA, brought West by Sunborn Games. Since a fair few people on my Twitter feed have been playing this recently, I thought I’d check it out for myself…
Moe anthropomorphism narratives often tend to go hand-in-hand with post-apocalyptic scenarios for some reason — even in the case of more cutesy, less aggressive variants such as the surprisingly popular Kemono Friends — and Girls’ Frontline is no exception. In this case, we’re thrown into a post-World War III setting that has also suffered a mysterious apocalyptic event known as the Collapse. Humanity is attempting to pick itself back up, and is using “Tactical Dolls” (or “T-Dolls”) to fight their battles, scout out the ravaged world and uncover the truth of what really happened.
T-Dolls are where the moe anthropomorphism comes in. In this case, we’re talking “girls who are also guns”, since each of them is named after a real-world firearm (or a non-trademark infringing equivalent, anyway) and is depicted as wielding said weapon in combat. Narratively speaking, these girls represent technology that was developed during the war, and, as tends to go with this sort of story, raise some questions over whether or not they have any “humanity” about them or if they are just, as some assume, a bunch of programs designed to behave in a particular way.
The game begins in media res with a squadron of T-Dolls apparently fighting something of a losing battle. We’re introduced to the basic controls for the game’s strategic sequences — more on those in a moment — as well as a number of the different characters. After things seemingly go rather southwards for the squadron, the perspective then switches to “us” — we play a rookie commander in a territory that, up until now, has been rather quiet and uneventful. Naturally, that is all about to change as you are tasked with taking on the mission to rescue the survivors from the disaster depicted in the introductory sequence.
Gameplay in Girls’ Frontline is rather different from your typical free-to-play mobile gacha game. Unlike popular titles such as Granblue Fantasy and Fate/Grand Order, this isn’t a sequence of RPG-style battles. Rather, there’s an interesting strategic element to each of the game’s missions, requiring you to consider the composition of your available “echelons” of T-Dolls, their positioning and your approach to the overall scenario.
Each mission consists of a node-based map, with each node being connected to others by one or more discrete pathways. There’s no “free” or grid-based movement here — you have to move via these pathways. A node will be captured if a unit ends its turn there, but a node can also be captured at the start of a new turn if all its “entrances” are surrounded by nodes belonging to the opposing team. This means two things: firstly, poor positioning can mean you can capture a node only to have it immediately recaptured; and secondly, good positioning can see you capture one node and take half the map at the start of your next turn!
Capturing nodes is useful for a number of reasons. Perhaps most significantly, the more nodes you control, the more actions you can take on your turn. But there are also special “heliport” nodes that allow you to deploy new echelons (or enlist those of your friends) as well as restock an echelon’s supplies or repair them. There’s a special reward if you complete a mission and capture all of the nodes in the process, though this often butts heads with another special reward available for completing the mission before a set number of turns has elapsed and with a certain number of enemies defeated. Missions can be repeated as many times as you wish, however; there’s no energy bar to worry about, with the only “costs” involved being four resources you gradually collect over time and as rewards for completing missions.
Encountering an enemy on the map switches to a battle screen, where combat mostly unfolds automatically, but you have the opportunity to trigger a cooldown-based ability for each of the T-Dolls in the echelon once it becomes available. These range from temporary buffs to immediate direct or splash damage, and can often turn the tide in your favour when up against tricky foes.
A key part of Girls’ Frontline’s gameplay comes in setting up your echelons in the first place. Unlike many similar games, it’s not just a case of picking the T-Dolls with the highest stats, though there is an element of that; team composition and even physical formation are important considerations, too.
T-Dolls fall into a number of different categories and specialisms according to their weapon type. Handguns, for example, are generally supporters, providing buffs to those nearby, while assault rifles are generalists and submachine guns are frontline fighters. When setting up your echelon of five T-Dolls, you have a 3×3 grid on which to arrange them, and each T-Doll has an “area of effect” on which they will confer passive buffs to their comrades around them. Consequently, optimising your battle strategy involves making the best possible use of these positional bonuses as well as ensuring that, say, the rather fragile handguns aren’t going toe-to-toe with the enemy on the front lines.
Character development also differs somewhat from other free-to-play gacha-based games; rather than “consuming” other units to gain experience, here units level up simply by participating in combat — though later in the game you have other opportunities to level your troops besides actively taking them into battle. Unwanted units can be consumed, but in this instance all it does is increase the consuming unit’s base stats up to a nominal maximum level, making them marginally more efficient.
At various level milestones, units become able to use a system called “Dummy Link”, where they can either pair up with a duplicate of the same unit or a special item called a “Dummy Core” to considerably enhance their abilities. In narrative terms, the unit is fighting alongside a clone dummy of themselves, multiplying their fighting abilities accordingly. This is always worth doing when it becomes available, as the difference in power is immense.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Girls’ Frontline is the fact that the gacha aspect is largely uninvolved with the main character progression. New T-Dolls are acquired by investing resources into production and then either waiting a period of real time or making use of “quick production contracts” (awarded quite generously through simply playing the game) to immediately create them. The more resources you invest, the more likely you are to get a more rare T-Doll, though this is by no means a sure thing; you can see the “recipes” different players have used to get various T-Dolls most recently and make use of the same combinations, but this, again, by no means guarantees you will enjoy similar success.
So what is the gacha for? Well, it’s for… furniture. That’s right, furniture. Besides the main strategic gameplay, there’s a metagame that involves you putting together a comfortable dormitory for your T-Dolls to relax in between missions, and the gacha ties into that. Decorating your dormitory increases its “comfort” level, which allows you to produce more “batteries”, which can subsequently be invested into various aspects of gameplay and even unlock new features. Collecting particular “sets” of furniture and decorations confers larger bonuses… plus it’s just fun to decorate your little dollhouse and see chibi versions of all your T-Dolls wandering around and chilling out. You can even visit friends’ dormitories and see at a glance which ones have spent too much money on the game already!
Perhaps the best thing about this system is the fact that it means the gacha doesn’t really interfere with the core gameplay at all — and while you can invest the game’s premium currency into acquiring additional resources as well as the gacha itself, completing quests and achievements rewards you with these at such a generous rate in the early game that it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself running out unless you’re playing for hours at a time. In other words, if you want to play the game for free, you can do so without feeling any obligation to pay up for “better” characters; indeed, I pulled my first five-star character from the factory without paying a penny, and a second came from a time-based reward.
Girls’ Frontline is a legitimately good game. It’s not “good for a mobile game” — it’s just a damn good time. It’s got gorgeous art, an interesting setting and story, lovely character designs and some enjoyable gameplay that manages to have some depth to it while remaining accessible to the… strategically challenged such as myself. If you’ve been looking for something new to entertain you on your phone, it’s well worth a look, so check it out for iOS and Android now if you’re intrigued!
More about Girls’ Frontline
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